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Cast hits all the right notes in 'Kate'

BEVERLY -- Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate" isn't as frequently revived as less worthy claimants to the title of "Best American Musical" because the principal roles are so difficult to cast. The leads must radiate glamour and charisma, and sing, act, and dance in dual roles; they must convince in Shakespeare as well as in high and low comedy. The other parts aren't much easier.

The North Shore Music Theatre has fielded a great team for this great show -- more consistently excellent, in fact, than the highly praised touring company that visited the Wang Center a couple of years ago. Alan Coats's production borrows some good ideas, refurbished lines, and updating from the recent London and Broadway revivals. The superb costumes by Martin Pakledinaz come from Broadway, where they won the designer a Tony.

The part of the temperamental film star Lilli Vanessi, returning to the stage as Kate in a new musical version of "The Taming of the Shrew," is particularly tricky because Porter tailored the role to the unusual vocal talents of Patricia Morrison, who could add a wide operatic range to a big Broadway belt without splitting her voice apart. Like Morrison, Rachel deBenedet seems to have been born to play Lilli and Kate. She looks and sounds gorgeous, ends a chorus of "I Hate Men" on a note as long and loud as Ethel Merman ever hit, and manages high notes and coloratura as deftly as she barbs a line and wings it at its target -- usually her nemesis and ex-husband, Fred Graham. She's elegant even in slapstick horseplay, and there's a human side to her, too -- she establishes a neat ambiguity, because it is not clear who is taming whom.

North Shore favorite George Dvorsky isn't quite as natural a fit for Fred/Petruchio as deBenedet is for Lilli/Kate, and it's his first go at a show she has performed before. He's at his best in light comedy, and his voice is really a tenor rather than a resonant Broadway baritone, so sometimes he seemed to be tilting at the role. In last Saturday's matinee, he misdelivered a crucial line about flowers that have arrived in the wrong woman's dressing room. But he's also a likable and thoroughly professional performer.

There are a pair of charmers as the second couple, the chorine Lois Lane and her feckless boyfriend Bill Calhoun -- Deb Leamy and Sean Palmer (from "Sex and the City") are both pleasant singers and vigorous dancers. James Van Treuren is amusing as a pompous general modeled on Douglas MacArthur; he gets to sing "From This Moment On," on loan from another Porter show ("Out of This World"). David Coffee and David Dollase bring down the house as the pair of gangsters who sing "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" and mangle the King's English. When Fred can't remember a big gambling debt (because someone else incurred it in his name), one of them explains, "The doctors call it magnesia." The smaller parts are all filled by talented people with good voices and limber legs; an ensemble member who is the understudy for Lilli also plays the violin onstage, and very well. Unusually, Porter entrusts two major songs to supporting characters -- Carolyn Saxon trumpets "Another Op'nin' Another Show" with gospel fervor, and Erich McMillan-McCall suavely leads off the big dance number that opens the second act, "It's Too Darn Hot."

Lee Wilkins's choreography is expert and sometimes spectacular, and musical matters are in the capable hands of conductor Antony Geralis and a spiffy 13-piece pit band. Coats's direction is lively: Although "Kate" is a long show, it doesn't feel that way because he keeps it moving so briskly. Patrons seated underneath a platform looked disgruntled whenever the action moved where they couldn't see it -- but otherwise just about everything about this "Kiss Me, Kate" is truly wunderbar.

Kiss Me, Kate
Musical in two acts by Cole Porter, Samuel and Bella Spewack. Directed by: Alan Coats. Set, Tal Sanders. Lights, David Neville. Costumes, Martin Pakledinaz. At: North Shore Music Theatre, through May 16. 978-232-7200.

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